You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Shemini.
From Rav Kook
Shmini: Immersion in Water
“If any of these dead (animals) falls on a vessel, it will become unclean… That article must be immersed in a mikveh …” (Lev. 11:32)
The topic of ritual impurity is a difficult one. This impurity is not a tangible entity; it cannot be seen or felt. It is a spiritual contamination, the result of association with death. The Torah teaches that purification is attained through immersion in a natural spring or a ritual bath (mikveh) filled with rainwater.
Why Immersion in Water?
The story is told of a wealthy American Jew who decided to visit one of the leading Torah scholars of his generation. Upon arriving at the rabbi’s home, the visitor was shocked to discover that the renowned scholar lived in a simple house, with a dirt floor and shabby wood furnishings. Anxious to help the rabbi improve his living conditions, the guest suggested that it would be more becoming for such an eminent scholar to have more respectable furnishings, and he would be more than happy to pay for all expenses.
The Torah scholar turned to his guest. ‘And tell me, where is your furniture?’
‘My furniture?’ responded the American Jew, baffled. ‘Why, I am only a visitor here. I don’t travel with all my belongings.’
‘So with me,’ the rabbi replied. ‘I am only a visitor here in this world …’
A Lesson in Estrangement
The act of immersing in water, Rav Kook taught, contains a profound psychological lesson. All immoral deeds, all flawed character traits, and all erroneous opinions — they all stem from the same fundamental mistake: not recognizing that our life in this world is transitory. Here, we are only visitors. Whatever we find here should be utilized for its eternal value.
When we immerse ourselves in water, we are forced to recognize our existential estrangement from the physical universe. How long can we survive under water? The experience of submerging drives home the realization that our existence in this world is transient, and we should strive towards more lasting goals.
Tents and Natural Springs
The Sages (Berachot 16a) hinted to this insight when they compared the effect of Torah study to that of a purifying spring:
“Why did Balaam (Num. 24:6) compare the tents of Israel to streams? This teaches us that just as a spring raises one from impurity to purity, so too, the tents (of Torah learning) raise one from the state of guilt to one of merit.”
In what way is learning Torah like submerging in a natural spring?
Torah study and immersion in water have a similar beneficial effect. Instead of focusing only on the material matters of this world, learning the wisdom of Torah raises our aspirations to eternal values. For this reason, the Sages used the expression, “tents of Torah.” Why tents? A tent is the most transient of homes. This phrase emphasizes the quality of Torah that, like a purifying mikveh or a natural spring, makes us aware of the transitory nature of the physical world.
(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 74)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
Shemini: The Error of Nadav and Avihu
In the midst of the tremendous joy as the Tabernacle was dedicated, tragedy struck the family of the Kohen Gadol:
“Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, placed fire on it and then incense. They offered before God a strange fire that God had not instructed them. Fire came forth from before God and consumed them; and they died before God.” (Lev. 10:1-2)
Why did Nadav and Avihu die? What was their sin?
Chochmah and Binah
The Kabbalists explained that Nadav and Avihu erred by separating the spiritual realm of Binah (Insight) from the higher realm of Chochmah (Wisdom). To understand this statement, we must first clarify the concepts of Chochmah and Binah.
Chochmah is the very essence of the Holy. It is pure awareness, like a flash of intuitive understanding. This general perception contains the splendor of sublime ideals at their highest level, before the detailed characteristics of reality. Compared to the infinite expanse of Chochmah, all else is limited and inconsequential.
Below Chochmah lies the spiritual realm of Binah. It is the elaboration and extension of Chochmah. This realm is created when the light of Chochmah is ready to form the ideals that govern finite content, permitting the formation of worlds and souls. Binah reflects reality in its most idealized form. It corresponds to the sublime purpose of creation and the culmination of life.
Exquisite beauty and delight are revealed in the realm of Binah. Enlightenment through the faculty of prophecy emanates from this realm. The absolute holiness of Chochmah, on the other hand, transcends all forms of spiritual pleasure.
Israel draws its inner spirit from the transcendent realm of Chochmah. As the Zohar states, “Oraita meChochmah nafkat” — the Torah emanates from Chochmah. The apex of Israel’s faith is beyond all spiritual pleasures, beyond all ideals. Ideals belong to the realm of Binah. Ultimately they restrict our aspirations and cannot provide an absolute and eternal level of morality.
Separating Binah from Chochmah
Nadav and Avihu drew their inspiration from the wellsprings of Binah. They sought the sublime experiences that characterize this realm, a spiritual grandeur that is accessible in our world. Due to their heightened awareness of their own greatness, however, they mistakenly saw in the holy realm of Binah the ultimate source of reality. They placed all of their aspirations in this spiritual world.
By doing so, they abandoned the supernal light that transcends all spiritual freedom and joy. The true basis of life and reality is rooted in the ultimate realm of Chochmah and Torah. Unpunished, their mistake would have brought about the collapse of the world’s moral foundations. History is testimony to many great ideals that, because they were not anchored to the elevated source of Chochmah, deteriorated to the darkest depths of ignorance and cruelty.
Nadav and Avihu erred by pursuing the spiritual pleasures of prophecy and wisdom in a form detached from Torah and its practical teachings. This is what the Kabbalists meant by the statement that Nadav and Avihu divided Binah from Chochmah. They tried to attain closeness to the Holy on their own initiative, offering a fire “that God had not instructed them.” The various explanations for their behavior found in the Talmud — that they were drunk with wine, that their heads were bare (a sign that they lacked proper awe of heaven), that they taught the Law in front of their teacher — all reflect the same basic flaw. Nadav and Avihu concentrated their efforts on their own spiritual attainments, without integrating the discipline of Torah. They were highly aware of their own greatness, but personal holiness must be negated before the higher light of Torah.
Repairing the Mistake of Nadav and Avihu
Nadav and Avihu, as the Torah stresses, had no children. Their service of God was not a service that could be transmitted to future generations. And yet their independent spirit and enthusiastic idealism has an important place in the future Messianic Era:
“Remember the Torah of Moses My servant, which I enjoined him on Horev, laws and statutes for all of Israel. Behold, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before God’s great and terrible day. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 3:22-24)
Malachi envisioned a future reconciliation of the fathers and the children. His prophecy also mentions Elijah the prophet and the Torah of Moses. What is the connection between these different themes?
The pre-Messianic Era is an age characterized by a tragic rift between the younger generation, idealistic and independent in spirit, and the older generation, faithful to the old traditions and the Torah of Moses. This divide parallels the sin of Nadav and Avihu, who separated Binah from Chochmah, dividing the ideals from their eternal source.
But the unique personality of Elijah, combining the prophetic ideals of justice with a zeal for the brit and the Torah, will repair and redeem this mistake. It is this synthesis that will succeed in reconciling the generations. And together, the passionate spirit of youth (Binah), together with the orderly and practical wisdom of the elders (Chochmah), will hasten the final redemption.
(Adapted from Orot HaKodesh, vol. II, pp. 283-286; vol. III, pp. 360-361)
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
LEVITICUS 9:1 – 11:47
Just before the priests are to be installed, Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu
offer “strange fire” before God and die in the process.
THE STORY OF THE STRANGE FATE of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu can be read as a warning… or as a promise.
On the face of it, it looks like they did something very wrong and were punished for it, thereby leaving us with a stern warning: You must play by the rules… or else! The text states that they, “offered strange fire which God had not commanded them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them and they died before God.”1
But perhaps Nadav and Avihu did not do anything wrong, but instead did something extraordinarily right. Perhaps death was not a punishment, but instead a passionate Divine embrace of beloveds.
Moses conveys God’s explanation of the event to Aaron with these words: “Through them that are near Me, I will be sanctified; and upon the face of all people I will be glorified.”2
These are not the words of an angry God. Those who were close to Nadav and Avihu are forbidden to mourn them. Is this because God is celebrating their return?
WHEN I RECEIVE this story as a blessing, Nadav and Avihu’s death becomes a demonstration of the power of transformation. I look for the place within me that is willing to offer up everything, directly from the impulse of the heart, without being asked, without conforming to what is deemed normal. The fire that I give seems strange because it is unmediated by religious convention. I give the strange raw essence of my passion, my fire, and then I am transformed through my giving. God takes me, rather than my gift. And isn’t this just what I had intended? I ask to be taken, used, transformed by the force that is constantly re-creating the world. I surrender self, form, knowledge, even religion that I might be returned to my Divine essence.
Shemini blesses me with this possibility, this promise: There comes a moment when all rules, procedures, methods, even my spiritual attainments are stripped away from me, and all I have left to give is my self. In that moment my giving is entirely unselfconscious. It is a gesture of pure soul yearning to return to its essence. In that moment of selflessness, the glory of God appears upon the faces of all people. In fact it is everywhere.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
AFTER RECOUNTING the story of Nadav and Avihu, which is about ecstasy, wild abandon, supreme intoxication, Shemini goes on to describe the path of discernment, responsibility and sobriety. Our spiritual challenge is to embrace the wisdom of both of these paths.
THE PATH OF SOBRIETY requires that I do everything possible to keep myself clear so that I may be of service. I must clear myself of prejudice, distortion, pride, despair… anything that might cloud an accurate vision of the truth of this moment or weaken my power to respond.
I must be careful about what I consume and what words I say. I must monitor my state of consciousness because it is the lens through which I perceive the world.
The path of sobriety requires an impeccability that is inspired by knowing that this day might be my last.
THE PATH OF ECSTASY requires that I be willing to surrender everything so that I might be held in the Divine embrace. On this path my sense of separateness dissolves. There is a happy confusion of subject and object.
It is necessary to learn to walk both these paths in the realization of holiness. Our sobriety gives us the strength and wisdom to hold and channel the ecstasy. Our ecstasy challenges rigidity and brings vitality to the heart of our sobriety.
In Shemini the reason that is given for our quest for holiness is that we must become like God, our Source. Becoming holy is, then realizing who we truly are. Towards the end of Shemini we are given this spiritual challenge:
I am YHVH (the Ground of Being) your God;
Sanctify yourselves and be holy
For I am holy.
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Brokenness and purity: more thoughts on Shemini 2008
If you read Vessel, the poem I wrote arising out of this week’s Torah portion, you know that Lev. 11:33 caught my attention this week. That’s the verse about how if any animal which is tamei (like a mouse or lizard or other creepy-crawly) falls into an earthen vessel, the vessel and its contents become tamei, and the vessel must be broken.
That verse takes me, through a kind of mental hyperlink, to Mishnah Kelim 2:1:
Vessels of wood, vessels of leather, vessels of bone or vessels of glass that are flat are clean. And those that form a receptacle are unclean. If they were broken they become clean again. If one remade them into vessels they are susceptible to uncleanness henceforth. Earthen vessels and vessels of alum-crystals are on a par in respect of uncleanness: they contract and convey uncleanness through their air-spaces, they contract uncleanness through their concave bottoms but not through their backs, and when broken they become clean.
The obsession with tahor and tamei, “pure” and “impure” (or, as my teacher Reb Judith Abrams prefers, “susceptible to ritual impurity” and “not susceptible to ritual impurity”), can be distancing for modern liberal Jews. My advice is, don’t fixate on the details of how various kinds of vessels become tahor or tamei. It’s the last line of that quote that interests me: “when broken they become clean.”
Maimonides, a.k.a. the Rambam, expands that line a little bit:
It is said that breaking is purification (or: to be broken is to be purified.) So that earthen vessels that have become tamei cannot become tahor through immersion in a mikvah … they are tamei until they’re broken. This is speaking in the language of Torah; everything that is in the vessel becomes impure, and you shall break it.
Talk of brokenness connects me — another mental hyperlink! — to a teaching about the broken tablets. Remember that Moshe brought a first set of tablets down from Sinai, but when he encountered the people dancing around the egel zahav, the Golden Calf, he shattered them. In the Talmud (Bava Basra 14a) we read that “The whole tablets and the broken tablets were both kept inside the Ark of the Covenant.”
Why did the children of Israel save the shards of the broken tablets? Why not destroy them, or leave them behind in the desert? Surely no one there wanted to keep them as mementos of one of the community’s strongest lapses of faith? But the tradition teaches us that the broken tablets were preserved as a sign that holiness persists even in our brokenness. Sometimes our brokenness, our mistakes, are what we have to offer to God…and that’s worthy of preservation along with the aspects of us which are whole.
A further leap from that teaching is the teaching that we must treat our elders with love and respect, even those who have lost their awareness and can no longer teach their wisdom, because the broken tablets were cherished along with the whole. And, of course, there’s the beautiful Hasidic teaching — attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk — that “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”
All of this in turn reminds of the parable of the Chinese woman with the two pots of water — how the broken pot was the one which actually yielded the path full of wildflowers. Blessings can arise through our brokenness — and maybe when we acknowledge that we’re always already a little bit broken, that’s how we become spiritually tahor, attuned to the deep purity that’s always within.
Credit where it’s due: many of the teachings in this post were drawn from the course I took on middot last summer. For the parable of the woman with the two pots of water, I owe gratitude to Broken, a post at Shirat Devorah
And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be unclean and [the vessel] itself you shall break. –Leviticus 11:33
The heart is an earthen vessel,
the body an urn: made from dust
and patched with slip,
divine fingerprints everywhere.
Clay is permeable. What you see,
what you touch changes you.
The small grey kitchen mouse
with its neck snapped, dry and grisly
or the body losing integrity, blood
welling someplace it shouldn’t
or the friend who lets you down,
the fierce hope that withers away:
each of these charges the heart
with uncanny energy, untouchable.
All you can do is break the clay
wide open, crack the very housing.
What hurts is what draws you
ever nearer to what we can’t reach.
And it came to pass on the eighth day (Leviticus 9:1)
That day took ten crowns: It was the first day of the Creation (i.e., a Sunday), the first for the offerings of the nessi’im (tribal heads), the first for the priesthood, the first for [public] sacrifice, the first for the fall of fire from Heaven, the first for the eating of sacred food, the first for the dwelling of the Divine Presence in Israel, the first for the priestly blessing of Israel, the first day on which it was forbidden to sacrifice to G-d anywhere save in the Sanctuary, and the first of months.
(Talmud, Shabbat 87b)
Speech signifies comprehensibility. Melody is beyond language, expressing moods which words cannot describe. Silence is yet higher.
The power to be silent at certain moments of life and of history is an important strength. It expresses the awareness that G-d is infinite, and cannot be encapsulated in our human conceptions of what should take place.
The Talmud tells of an instance in which Moses himself was told by G-d to be silent. G-d showed him in a vision all future generations of the Jewish people, and the leaders of each generation. Moses was greatly impressed by the wisdom of Rabbi Akiva. Then he saw the way the Romans tortured him to death. “Is this the reward of his Torah knowledge?” Moses asked. G-d answered: “Be silent. Thus it arose in My thought”.
This is not to say that the Torah advocates a fatalistic approach to life. Before the event, one must do everything possible to prevent tragedy. But once it has happened, G-d forbid, through the acceptance and the silence we reach a special closeness to the Divine. Our Sages tell us that because Aaron was silent, he was rewarded by G-d speaking directly to him.
In our generation, too, there is a need for this power of silence. It is not a passive power, but one that leads to vigorous and joyous action. The Jewish response to the harrowing events of the Shoah is the determined and energetic action to rebuild Jewish family life and Jewish knowledge.
Through our power of silence we too, like Aaron, will merit Divine revelation. G-d will bring the Messiah, rebuilding the Temple and bringing lasting peace to the world.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
The worth of a utensil of wood or metal is not only in its function as a container–the material of which it is made also has value. So contact with any part of it, including its outside surface, affects its ritual state. On the other hand, an earthen utensil, whose body is mere earth, has value only as a container; accordingly it is affected only by what happens to its inside. Indeed, its inside is therefore even more susceptible to contamination than that of other utensils.
Man is an earthen vessel (“And G-d formed man out of the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostril a living soul”–Genesis 2:7). His worth lies not in his material exterior, but in its content. He should therefore regard as significant only what pertains to his inner self.
(The Rebbe of Kotzk)
When a person endeavors to venture forth on his own, relying on his own intellect and feelings to guide him in the proper path, he had best be well equipped for the task. For he is then a mikveh, a pool of water no longer in direct contact with its source, which must possess a minimum of so many “gallons” of understanding and fortitude. Furthermore, he must be “stationary,” contained and delimited by walls outside of himself; for without such objective control he is susceptible to all sorts of distortions and corruptions. A mikveh that lacks these criteria not only fails to purify other things, but is also itself vulnerable to contamination.
On the other hand, one who is a “wellspring,” disavowing all pretensions of a “separate identity” from his Source, has no such limitations. His intellect may not be the deepest, his talents quite unspectacular, but the little he has can effectively take on the most challenging of tasks. Nor does he require any confining walls or “closed communities” to safeguard his integrity: wherever he goes and flows, he has a positive effect on his environment and is never negatively influenced by its imperfections. For no matter how scant his resources, and no matter where he ventures forth, he maintains an unbroken attachment to his Source.
From Melissa Carpenter
And Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, each took his incense pan, and they put fire in them, and they put incense upon it. Then they brought near before God strange fire, that he had not commanded them. A fire went forth from before God, and it consumed them, and they died in front of God. (Leviticus 10:1-2, Shemini)
Nadav = generous one, spontaneous giver
Avihu = my father is he
The mishkan (the Israelites’ portable sanctuary, a dwelling-place for God) has finally been assembled. Moses has carried out an elaborate ritual to make his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons priests. These first five priests of Israel have spent seven days in the middle courtyard of the sanctuary, in front of the curtained entrance to the Holy of Holies.
On the eighth day, as this week’s Torah portion begins, Moses summons Aaron and his sons, and has the elders bring forward the first sacrifices to be made on the new altar by the new priests. Moses announces that after these sacrifices, the glory of God will appear to everyone.
Aaron performs the series of sacrifices, and his four sons assist him. Aaron blesses the people. Then Moses takes Aaron into the Tent of Meeting, the Holy of Holies. When they emerge again, they bless the people together. Then the glory of God appears, and “a fire went forth from before God, and it consumed” the animal parts on the altar. Presumably the fire comes from the Holy of Holies, and miraculously travels through the curtains and the middle courtyard without burning anything, before consuming the sacrifices in a blaze of glory. The people shout with joy and fall on their faces.
In the midst of the rejoicing, Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, pick up their incense pans. Nobody has instructed them to do so; each one is moved by his own impulse. They put fire, in this case glowing embers, in their pans, and add incense. Then they bring “strange fire” before God. And “a fire went forth from before God, and it consumed them.” The Torah even uses the same Hebrew words for both occasions of divine fire.
What happened? The commentary offers too many different theories to list them all in this blog. Here’s what I think happened.
Nadav and Avihu acted on impulse instead of asking for instructions—even though Moses has issued warnings that the whole sanctuary is a dangerous place where the priests risk death unless they follow instructions meticulously. They probably took their incense pans all the way into the Holy of Holies—and later the Torah says that although Moses goes in to speak with God, no one else may enter that innermost chamber except the high priest, once a year. Nadav and Avihu bring their “strange fire” into the holiest place as an act of worship. But their impulsive violation means death.
Both Nadav and Avihu (unlike their two younger brothers, who stick to the instructions and live) have already beheld God’s feet on a pavement of sapphire (Exodus 24:10) halfway up Mount Sinai. After an experience like that, it’s hard to go back to just seeing the usual pillar of cloud and fire. They’re both hungry for more contact with God.
They see that when Aaron finishes the sacrifices and blesses the people from the altar, no manifestation of God occurs. But after Moses takes Aaron into the Tent of Meeting, the Holy of Holies, the miraculous fire of God comes forth and lands on the altar.
Clearly the way to bring about an encounter with God is to enter the Holy of Holies.
Nadav, whose name means a generous or spontaneous giver, decides to give himself as a nedavah, a spontaneous gift to God. He is willing, even eager, to let his own ego go up in smoke in order to be united with God. He picks up his incense pan.
Avihu, whose name means “he is my father”, is also carried away with the ecstasy of the moment. He sees his brother heading toward the innermost chamber with an incense pan, and he grabs his own pan. He doesn’t stop to think that he’s risking his life. He’s like his father, Aaron, who made the golden calf when the people asked for an idol, without thinking through the consequences. (The traditional explanation of Avihu’s name is that God is like a father to him, but I think the evidence points to Avihu’s actual father.) Now as Avihu wants to encounter God in the Holy of Holies, the way his father Aaron just did.
Although the two brothers act from different impulses, they both bring “strange fire” before God. Symbolically, this fire is their passion: Nadav’s burning desire to give himself to God, and Avihu’s burning desire to experience more divine ecstasy. Their consuming desires are met with a consuming fire from God.
Aaron’s two younger brothers, Elazar and Itamar, stick to doing the job God has given them. They are rewarded with long lives and many descendants who also serve as priests.
Is it better to die in an ecstasy of worship, hurtling your soul into the unknown? Or is it better to keep your feet on the ground and pay attention to the demands of this world, even as you keep your sense of awe?
I believe we are all in this world for a reason, with a job to do, even if we don’t know what it is. I’d rather be like Elazar and Itamar, and hope for a long life of service in this world, doing my work as well and as carefully I can. (But I’m glad I wasn’t given the work of a priest!)
Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
THE EIGHTH DAY
The “eighth day” with which our parshah of SHEMINI opens was the first day of the month of Nissan, one year since the Exodus from Egypt. This was the day marked out for the final inauguration of the Sanctuary following seven days of consecration of Aaron and his sons for service as priests. Those seven days had started on the 23rd of the preceding month of Adar. On each of those seven days, Moses had erected the Sanctuary in order to conduct the priestly consecration rituals, in which he himself served as the “high priest”, only to dismantle the Sanctuary afterwards. However, on the Eighth Day — the first of Nissan and first day of the New Year — the Sanctuary was left standing, so to remain for as long as the Israelites stayed in the same desert encampment. On that day Aaron and his sons fully assumed the role of priests forever after.
The rabbis stated that the first day of Nissan “took ten crowns”: It was (1) the first day of creation; (2) first day of the first of the months of the year; (3) the first day of the priesthood; (4) the first day of the Sanctuary service; (5) first day of the inauguration sacrifices of the princes of the twelve tribes; (6) first day for the descent of fire from heaven on the altar; (7) the first day that sacrifices were eaten; (8) the first day that all other altars (such as private altars) other than the Sanctuary altar became forbidden; (9) the first day that the Divine Presence dwelled in Israel; (10) the first day on which the priests blessed the people (Mechilta, Shemini 1).
In calling this the “eighth” day, the Torah alludes to the fact that, with the inauguration of the Sanctuary, it was the day on which the Israelites completely transcended the natural order, which was brought into being through the “seven days of creation”. The latter correspond to the lower seven of the ten sefirot of which the Kabbalah speaks, corresponding to the “body” (as opposed to top three, which are the “head”).
As long as man does not recognize his true mission in this world and spends his life trying to satisfy only his bodily needs and desires, he is locked within nature, like an animal. However, when he embraces his destiny, willfully configuring and using the material world as a means of drawing closer to G-d, building a Sanctuary and bringing the natural, the animal, as a KORBAN, a “sacrifice” (lit. “a drawing close”), man attains a level that transcends nature. This is the eighth level, that of BINAH (the eighth Sefirah counting up from Malchut, which is the bottom Sefirah). BINAH is the “gateway” to the “head”, the brain and the soul (consisting of the top three Sefirot).
When we use our soul-powers — our willpower, wisdom and understanding, to assert our control over the material and the animal, we can “pass through the gate” into the world of the spirit. This is governed by a law different from that which governs the natural order. The world of the spirit is governed by Torah law. When we pass through the gate, we can know and understand (with BINAH) that the natural order is nothing but an arena of challenge created by G-d in order for us to use it to connect back to the Source. As long as we are under the power of nature, this world stands as a barrier holding us back from G-d. But when we assert our spiritual power, this world turns into a gateway through which we can draw closer to Him.
From Rabbi Jonathan Case
We do not know what we do not know.
Sometimes we even do not know what we do know.
Man was endowed with reason. When the first being was cast into life in the Garden, the Torah teaches that Adam was created in the “image” and “likeness” of his Creator. Rashi commented that the first description means that the first man was cast into a certain mold. The second description, likeness, points to the man having the power of reason. It is our gift of understanding.
From the time when God took the golem-form from the earth and breathed into the Breath of Life to the moment of overwhelming lust to have open eyes to the universe we became people in search of ourselves.
We fervently desire to understand what life means. We want to know why we live. What is our purpose? That is why stories such as the one told here is Shmini are so vexing. They raise more question than provide answers.
Here, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron, die. Near the holy altar of God they are enveloped by a conflagration that excoriated their inner being while leaving their body/husk intact. A pitiful father has watched his sons die. What does this passage mean?
Some scholars tell that Nadav and Avihu were drunk. Intoxicated, they approached the holy of holies and were punished by a burst of heavenly fire.
Others tell that Nadav and Avihu were presumptuous. They came into the holy of holies unbidden. For the trespass they died.
Another commentator expresses the belief that they offered up incense out of their zealousness rather than follow the instructions of their father.
What is the truth? The Midrash and Talmud are littered with numerous ideas about the death of the two young kohanim. Some make sense while others leave us incredulous.
God comes to father Aaron to have a word with him after the inferno that left his sons dead. Through Moses, He tells him, “I will be honored in front of all the people.”
B’krovai ekadesh. “The ones whom I love will be made holy,” said the Holy One.
At these words Aaron was silent. Vayidom.
Did Aaron understand what God meant? Was his silence the response to hearing the explanation of God? Mute acceptance?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * **********
Many, many years later a great Sage, Rabbi Yehudah, lay dying. His disciples arranged themselves around his bed and prayed for their teacher. They looked into the holy books, fasted and begged God to listen to their prayers and grant their leader life.
The servant of Rabbi Yehudah left the group and opened her heart before God. She prayed, “In the upper world they want our master. They call him. In the lower world the rabbis keep Rabbi Yehudah with their prayers. Listen, Lord, to the voice from Above. Let them be the stronger.”
She then took a jug and hurled it onto the ground so that all the holy men were momentarily distracted from their prayers. In that instance the Angel of Death kissed the venerable leader.
What did the maid servant do? Was she guilty of killing the holy rabbi? In distracting the Sages from their prayers she lifted the protective veil keeping Rabbi Yehudah alive. Was she to be blamed for his death?
One the Sages, Bar Kappara, investigated and found the girl. He saw what she had done and then commented, “Both angels and human beings were clinging to the holy Ark. The angels overpowered the humans and the Ark has been taken from us.”
Bar Kappara told his contemporaries that Rabbi Yehuda was like the holy Ark. They were both gone. What is gone is gone.
Yet, Bar Kappara did not blame the servant. He did not rail against the heavens. The end of the story closes abruptly.
Vayidom. And he was silent.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * **********
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakki was in mourning for his son. His colleague and friend came to console him. Elazar ben Azariah said, “A long time ago a king gave a subject a precious gem to care for and watch. Each day the man guarded the jewel and fretted when the king would one day return to reclaim his property.
“The same is true for you, dear friend. You had a son who was rich in learning, steeped in lore and law. Now you have retuned the loan.”
One commentary elevates Aaron for his silence. It was not just a silence in the face of the judgment of God, although that would be enough. Before an event we must take precautions to avoid mishap. After such an occurrence what can we do?
The son of the Gerer Rebbe died just before the sun set on a Friday afternoon, before Shabbat. No one wanted to tell the great leader of the loss. No one wanted to deliver the message on the sacred day until one follower, a devout and meek hasid offered his condolences to the rebbe. The rebbe listened and then said, “Shh. Nu? It is Shabbos.”
The day continued and until the sun set on Saturday the rebbe still sang and taught with great joy. When Havdalah came the rebbe ripped his clothes, sank to the floor and cried and mourned for the shiva. Silent until Shabbat had ended, the pain of the Gerer Rebbe seemed to now hold no bounds.
Could this be real? Did this actually happen?
Whether or not it did happen perhaps the rays of light that are expelled from the story tale teach a lesson about our life.
The Zohar says that whoever weeps at the fate of Nadav and Avihu when they read this story will not suffer the same fate. Perhaps the lesson of silence is about acceptance.
Reb Sholom Brodt
It Was A Joyous Day
In the Mechilta we learn: “And it was on the eighth day,” on this day there was joy before Hashem in the heavenly spheres, like the joy that was present on the day that the heavens and earth were created. The Sfas Emes explains that this was so because the B’nai Yisrael drew down a new pathway to Hashem through the Tshuvah that they had done. [In a sense] it was not fitting for us to have made the golden calf. The transgression came about [and we were still responsible for it] so that we should prepare the pathway of Tshuvah. Now that the Mishkan was completed and was consecrated there was great joy in heaven before Hashem, for today Hashem glory would be revealed among the people.
Related to the above, I once heard that a student of the Ropshitzer Rebbe asked, “Rebbe, the rabbis teach us that before we do something, it is announced in heaven that ‘so and so is about to do such and such’. Now I can understand such a heavenly announcement before one does a mitzvah, but why would they make such an announcement before one does a transgression?”
The Ropshitzer Rebbe replied, that in heaven they don’t announce that so and so is about to do a transgression, rather they announce that so and so is about to make a new pathway to return to Hashem.
The Tzaddik And The Baal Tshuvah
Interesting! During the first seven days when Moshe Rabbeinu, the complete tzaddik, did all the services and sacrificed the korbanot, the Shechinah did not yet return to dwell among the people. The Midrash tells us that the people approached Moshe Rabbeinu, very much embarrassed, wondering why, after all the work they had done to construct the Mishkan, did the Shechinah not return to dwell amongst them? Was there a flaw in their work? Had they not done it with the proper intentions? Why was Hashem still rejecting them?
Moshe Rabbeinu told them, that the service of his brother Aharon HaKohen, the ‘baal tshuvah’, was greater than his service, and that as soon as he will do his service in the Mishkan the Shechinah will return. But this too requires further explanation! In what way was Aharon’s service greater than Moshe’s? And why was the tzaddik, Moshe Rabbeinu, not able to bring the Shechinah back through the services that he had performed? And one further question: as we shall soon see, Aharon too was not successful on his own in bringing down the Shechinah! It was only after Moshe and Aharon would return to the tent to pray together, that the Shechinah finally returned. We need to understand this.
As we read the parsha carefully and we find that, ‘Bayom ha’shmini’, on the eighth day”, after Moshe Rabbeinu had already instructed Aharon about the sacrifices that he was to offer on his behalf and on behalf of the nation, he tells him again, “krav el hamizbei’ach, approach the altar and offer your korbanot.” It was as if Moshe has to push Aharon into doing the service. Why was this necessary?
The Midrash tells us that Aharon was ashamed to approach the altar for he saw the image of the golden calf [his sin] on the altar. This broke his heart and he was filled with shame before Hashem. How can he, who made the golden calf, bring a sacrifice upon the altar? There right in front of him is his sin; there right before his eyes it is mocking him! How dare I approach the altar? How can the baal tshuvah ever come close to Hashem again?
So Moshe tells him, The commentaries understand these words of Moshe Rabbeinu as saying, “yes your heart is broken and precisely because it is so broken, [more so than everyone else’s] because you feel so much shame and fear before Hashem, you are chosen to be the High Priest. You are the one who is opening the pathway for all Baalei tshuvah to come back to Hashem with love. You are the one to bring the people to Hashem.”
The Sfas Emes [Shmini 5658] interprets Moshe Rabbeinu’s statement “lama attah bosh? l’kach nivcharta!- why are you ashamed? that is why you were chosen!” in a more literal manner. He says that the ultimate purpose of being chosen is to merit a deep sense of embarrassment [humility], as it says when we received the Torah, “So that His fear shall be upon your faces, so that you will not transgress!” The Rabbis equate this fear of Hashem with “boshet”- embarrassment and humility. Such embarrassment and humility comes from being deeply aware that you are in the presence of Hashem. The Rabbis further say that a lack of such shame indicates that this person’s ancestors were not present at Mt. Sinai when the Torah was given! Thus we understand that being brought close at Mt. Sinai is for the merit of acquiring the attribute of “boshet”- embarrassment and humility.
In Pirkei Avot, Hillel says “Be a student of Aharon, who loved the people and brought them close to the Torah.” The Sfas Emes explains this as follows; Aharon haKohen’s love for each person was great, even for those who were always transgressing. As they would come to be close with him, they would on their own begin to feel a sense of shame and this would cause them to do tshuvah and come close to the Torah.
Measure for measure, Hashem did the same for Aharon HaKohen. Because Aharon HaKohen brought the people close to Hashem and His Torah, therefore Hashem brought him even closer to Himself and chose him to be the Kohen Gadol- the High Priest. Now this caused Aharon to feel great embarrassment – this, explains the Sfas Emes, is the ultimate ‘shleimus’- completeness in the service of Hashem.
It is with such a sense of shame and humility that one can approach every mitzvah. The Sfas Emes defines “boshet” as the humility that comes over you when you honestly think about, “How could a clump of dust possibly do the will of the Creator blessed be His Name?” It is with such humility that you can actually do His will!
And so too after you have done the mitzvah- if it was done b’shleimus- in a manner that is complete, whole and true, then an even deeper sense of humility comes over you!!!
And so, says the Sfas Emes both interpretations are true. Because Aharon felt shame therefore he was chosen, and having been chosen as Kohen Gadol, the attribute of “boshet” was affixed within him even more deeply.
Moshe and Aharon
Then Aharon HaKohen, the master of the broken heart approached the altar and offered the sacrifices. Then he stepped down from the altar and concluded his service by blessing the B’nai Yisrael with the threefold priestly blessings:
“May Hashem bless you and protect you.
May Hashem shine His countenance unto you and grant you charm.
May Hashem lift His face unto you and give you Shalom”
But still the Shechinah did not return! Aharon haKohen, the High Priest, was totally filled with shame. He is certain that it is because of his shortcomings, because of his sins, that Hashem is still angry with him; that is why the Shechinah has not returned! He turns to his brother Moshe imploringly, ‘why did you put me to shame by insisting that I do the services?
Then, “Moshe and Aharon went into the Tent of Meeting [to pray to Hashem] and [then] they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of Hashem appeared to the entire people. (9:23)
Rashi teaches that they blessed the people with the blessing: “May the pleasantness of Hashem our G-d be upon us; establish for us the work of our hands, establish the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90.) And then the Shechinah finally returned to the people: “A fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed what was on the altar; the burnt-offering and the fats. All the people saw and they raised their voices in uttered praise and they fell on their faces.” (Vayikra 9:24)
In Psalm 99 we read: “Moshe and Aharon, among His priests, and Samuel among those who invoke His Name, would call upon the Lord and He would answer them. He would speak to them from a pillar of cloud.”
Moshe Rabbeinu, the ‘tzaddik’ who did not have any part in the sin of the golden calf, was not able to bring down the Shechinah by himself. Neither was Aharon HaKohen the broken hearted ‘baal tshuvah’, able to do it by himself. It was only when they finally went in to pray together that the Shechinah finally returned. Like Yehudah and Yosef, the baal tshuvah needs the tzaddik and the tzaddik needs the baal tshuvah. Indeed the service of the baal tshuvah m’ahavah – the one, who returns to Hashem out of love for Him, reaches higher than the service of the tzaddik!
All food contains fragments of souls and holy sparks. Adam’s sin and the sins that we have committed in our present and past lives caused many fragments and sparks from our very souls to become scattered throughout the world. Many of these holy sparks become embedded in the food that we eat. Therefore, when we have a desire and a liking to eat a certain food, it is because our soul senses that part of its very essence is embedded in the food that it desires to eat. By eating this food, one actually is filling the void or deficiency in his soul. If one makes a blessing on the food before and after he eats, he sanctifies these sparks that now become part of his soul. Reciting a blessing on one’s food has a great influence on the spiritual and physical performance and health of one’s body and soul.
There is a second reason why someone might desire to eat a particular food. This person is not missing any sparks from his own soul. He eats a particular food in order to elevate the souls that are trapped in a particular food. By making a blessing on food, prior to eating it, he elevates the souls that are contained in that food. These souls now become absorbed and merged into his own soul. These newly acquired souls provides him with additional spiritual power and light to be able to come closer to G-d. This is the meaning of the following verse: “The righteous (Tzaddik) eats to satisfy his soul” (Proverbs 13:25).
The Rabbis designated special benedictions to be recited on fruits and vegetables. The reason for this is that fruits and vegetables contain more precious and holy souls than other types of food. Therefore, fruits and vegetables require a higher type of benediction than what is recited for standard food, which do not contain these higher holy souls.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Shemini
More & Less: Balancing Striving & Complacency
The Torah reading of this week begins “And it was on the Eighth day, that Moshe/Moses summoned Aaron and his children…“ (9:1)
For the past seven days Moshe has been constructing and deconstructing the Mishkan/the sanctuary in the desert, and acting as the Cohen Gadol/high priest. On the eighth day, the Mishkan was constructed to remain standing, and Aaron, Moshe’s older brother, takes over the role of high priest.
There are essentially two movements in life; either we are moving outward or we are going inward. We are externalizing or internalizing, desiring what is outside of us, or drawing in. This is the exhale and inhale, and these movements are known as ‘Ratzu’/running (or moving outwards) and ‘Shuv’/returning (or satisfaction.)
Moshe and Aaron collectively represent these two movements. Moshe embodying the quality of Ratzu, that of aspiring, yearning, desiring and always wanting more, never being satisfied with the status quo. Moshe was the one to break free of Egypt, and being the quintessential ‘Ratzu’, when he serves as the high priest, the Mishkan is continually being taken down and then rebuilt. Aaron, representing ’Shuv,’ serves in permanence. When he assumes the role of high priest, the Mishkan is in an established state. Aaron is a man of the people, and is the one most suitable for the position of upholding order and routine, the service of the priesthood.
‘Ratzu,’ which is essentially ’striving desire’, can be divided into a 4 tiered hierarchy. They are, in ascending order;
1.“Physical desire,” a yearning for more stuff, physical objects and the like.
2.“Emotional desire,” a desire for more love and appreciation.
3.“Intellectual desire,” wanting to know more of the world and of one’s self.
4.“Spiritual desire,” a yearning to transcend and sense Transcendence.
This is the hierarchy of human desire, each desire enfolded within the next.
Normally the progression is from the physical to the emotional, the intellectual to the spiritual. Although they may manifest in other ways, the physical/emotional and intellectual desires are all outer expressions of the essential inner, spiritual desire.
Our deepest desire is our spiritual desire. Our soul experiences an emptiness which is essentially a desire for spiritual connection, yet we often mistakenly experience this hunger as a desire for lower forms of connection.
Our soul hungers for spiritual connection and we think we simply desire another pair of shoes. Of course, we know that when we fulfill this lower desire, we still remain feeling devastatingly empty and dissatisfied.
Healthy living is balance. A healthy balance must be established between our deepest desire to transcend and cleave to our soul root, and the opposing awareness of Shuv, a deep understanding of our immediate purpose, the now.
This Week’s Energy:
Balancing Striving & Complacency
Within each one of us there are these two seemingly opposing movements and the energy we receive this week is the unification of these qualities.
We are imbued with the ability to find a balance between our spiritual self that yearns for transcendence and our physical self that needs to be nourished as well.
This week we can achieve a reconciliation of desiring to transcend this universe and simultaneously partaking of its pleasures. We are given the energy to find a healthy balance of ‘Ratzu’ and ‘Shuv.’
Shemini: Blessing for Glory
And Aaron lifted his hand to the people and blessed them; then he came down from performing the transgression offering and the ascending offering and the well-being offering. Then Moses came, with Aaron, into the Tent of Meeting, and they went out and they blessed the people, and the glory of God appeared to all the people. (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:22-23)
va-yevarcchu = and they blessed, gave power for good fortune, bestowed prosperity or fertility upon
kavod = glory, weightiness, importance, splendor, presence
The Torah portion Shemini (Eighth) opens on the eighth day after Moses has consecrated Aaron and his sons as priests. In front of all the people, Moses tells Aaron what to do next, saying: This thing that God commanded, you will do, and the glory of God will appear to you.
So Aaron performs his first animal sacrifices on the altar, exactly as instructed. Then, while everyone is waiting for the glory of God, Aaron gives the people a blessing. The Torah doesn’t say what the blessing is, but traditional commentary from the Talmud on assumes that this first blessing by the first high priest must be the blessing prescribed for priests in Numbers/Bamidbar 6:22-27 (and still used as a prayer today): May God bless you and guard you; May God illuminate his face for you and be gracious to you; may God lift his face to you and place peace over you.
At this point, one might expect a response from God. Instead, the Torah tells us Moses enters the inner sanctuary, bringing Aaron along. Why? There are several theories, but I favor one in Sifra, a 4th-century collection of commentary. The Sifra says they were concerned that God’s glory had not yet manifested as promised, so they went into the most sacred space to pray. S.R. Hirsch, a 19th-century rabbi, claimed God delayed on purpose so as to prevent any belief that the animal offerings magically make God’s glory appear. When Moses and Aaron step into the inner sanctum, they realize that the “glory” will only manifest when everyone is committed to serving God. So they go back out and give the people a blessing that also serves a prayer for the people’s commitment.
And it works, because fire erupts out of nowhere and consumes the offering on the altar. Then the people sing out with joy and fall on their faces.
Why are they so excited? Haven’t they already seen God’s “glory”? They witnessed a long string of miracles in Egypt, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea. They’ve seen the glory of God both as the pillar of cloud and fire that led them from Egypt to Mount Sinai, and as fire on the mountain itself on the day of the revelation.
However, then Moses climbed the mountain and did not return for 40 days, and there was no pillar of cloud and fire to reassure the Israelites. In their desperation at the absence of both God’s prophet and any visible manifestation of God, the people worshiped the golden calf. Moses returned to them, but God’s cloud and fire did not. The Israelites were so anxious to see the glory of God again, they donated vast treasure and labor to make the mishkan, literally a “dwelling-place” for God.
When the mishkan is completed, at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot, the Torah states: Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the mishkan. Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested upon it.
Didn’t the children of Israel see the glory of God then? Even if they didn’t try to enter the Tent, surely they could see the divine cloud covering it.
Or could they? Maybe, ever since the golden calf, nobody but Moses was able to “see” any manifestation of God. Maybe the people’s spiritual sense had become blinded. God’s presence was right there, all along, but the people could not see it—not until after Moses and Aaron returned from the inner sanctum and gave them another blessing.
What was this second blessing? The Torah doesn’t say, but Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that it came from Psalm 90, which begins: A prayer for Moses. He picked out verse 17, another common Jewish prayer: May the comfort of the Lord our God be upon us, and the work of our hands make a strong foundation for us.
In this context, the blessing prays that the people will be comforted by experiencing God’s presence, and that the work of making the mishkan will lead to a strong commitment to serving God. Upon hearing this blessing, perhaps the Israelites relaxed and recovered their spiritual senses, so they could once again see the presence of God.
Getting a blessing from another person can seem like a useless exercise. After all, a human being has no power to make the blessing come true. We can only express the hope that God will make it happen.
Yet when I received blessings from Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, I felt some transfer of holiness. This feeling made a psychological difference to me, changing my attitude toward life and toward the divine. And when I receive blessings over and over again from the members of the congregation he built, I feel warmed and comforted. God becomes manifest in the glowing expressions on their faces.
It’s hard to be loyal and committed to an abstract principle. The commitment comes more naturally when the abstraction is connected with a human being, someone whose face is shining, someone whose warm feelings are palpable. I can understand why the children of Israel became more committed to God when Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, came out of God’s dwelling place and blessed them. The blessing in itself was a manifestation of God. And their psychological response to the blessing enabled them to see the glory of God.
Bless someone today. Maybe it will make a difference.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
CLEAR (SHMINI) 2009
When you enter
be clear as a glassy lake
to every scent and sound
no wine shall cross your lips
no intoxicants, nothing
to loosen your limbs
or slur your speech
God demands presence
not distraction, not the
continuous partial attention
you give everyone else
if you can’t promise that
From Rabbi Avram Davis
From The American Jewish World Service
At times, I find that my fellow social justice activists are tired. Tired from the barrage of need they face daily. Tired from the uphill battle against intractable social problems. Tired from the wearing down of their expectations that sustainable change is possible. Eventually, their emotional capacity for social justice work becomes exhausted. Sometimes it seems that the more they commit to fighting for social justice, the more vulnerable they are to being consumed by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.
We find a striking parallel to this phenomenon in the story of Nadav and Avihu in Parshat Shmini. Immediately following the inauguration of Aaron and his sons,1 something strange and tragic occurs. In Leviticus 10:1-2 we read: “Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.”2
It is clear from the language of the text that Nadav and Avihu transgressed the established boundaries of worship. Yet, their motivations are less evident. Why would two members of the priestly class ignore God’s clear instructions for ritual worship?
Eighteenth-century Moroccan Talmudist and kabbalist Chaim ben Moses ibn Attar understands Nadav and Avihu to be driven by a desire to pursue God that could not be contained by established boundaries. Writing in his well known commentary the Ohr HaChaim, ibn Attar points to the line in Leviticus 16 that reads: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.”3 He writes: “They approached the supernal light out of their great love of the Holy, and thereby died. Thus they died by ‘Divine kiss’ such as experienced by the perfectly righteous; the difference is only that the righteous die when the Divine kiss approaches them, while [Nadav and Avihu] died by their approaching it.”4 Counter-intuitively, Nadav and Avihu’s deaths were a result of loving God too much.
Their story illustrates that the boundaries for worship established through God’s instructions to Moses are designed, in part, to prevent people from becoming consumed by their passion for the Divine. Significantly, Rashi understands Nadav and Avihu’s destruction to be of the soul and not the body. Commenting on the description of the deceased men being carried from the camp by their tunics,5 Rashi writes: “This tells us that their garments had not been destroyed by fire, but their souls alone—as if two strands of fire had entered their nostrils.”6 Nadav and Avihu’s clothing and bodies remained intact with no signs of burning; they had been struck by fire inwardly.
The description of Nadav and Avihu’s fate closely mirrors the experience of the burned-out activist. Like Nadav and Avihu in their overzealous worship, the pursuit of justice can bring us “too close” to relentless suffering and the disappointment of constant setbacks. And like the Divine fire, these encounters can consume our inner passion. Outwardly, the activist in us continues to exist, but our drive to pursue change is significantly diminished.
In order to prevent hopelessness and maintain a productive passion for social change, we must learn to establish boundaries between our activism and our inner selves. This may feel counterintuitive, since the archetypal activist is one who commits his or her entire being to a cause without limitation. But Parshat Shmini illustrates that even in the pursuit of our highest values, we must operate within a practical framework that enables us to function.
Our challenge, then, is to find out where our individual boundaries lie, and to learn to approach close enough to our cause to influence positive change, but not so close that we become consumed by it. We must grapple deeply with suffering and injustice, but maintain enough distance in our personal lives to give us the strength to carry on. We must recognize our own tolerance for frustration and ensure that we do not overinvest.
When we fail to respect this boundary, we, like Nadav and Avihu, run the risk of letting our pursuit of social justice consume our souls. By limiting the expression of our passion in the short term through a few protective measures, we extend it and deepen it long into the future.
1 Leviticus 9.
2 Leviticus 10:1-2.
3 Leviticus 16:1.
4 Ohr HaChaim on Leviticus 16:1.
5 Leviticus 10:5.
6 Rashi on Leviticus 10:5.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
March 25th, 2011
Building of the Mishkan completed [sanctuary]
seven days of installation
– the Shekhinah
had not yet appeared [Lev.R.11:6]
slipped into his robes.
God the King
Moses the King’s attendant
Israel the Queen
Aaron the Queen’s attendant –
working from the lower world
so to speak.
Aaron lighting the candles
take hold the flame
upward the fire flying.
See Aaron standing on the limestone
raise high the flame
the flame of guardianship.
Aaron tender of the flame
which is like the soul
the lamp of God the soul
of a human being, [Prov.20:27]
Aaron the tender of souls on fire
he loved all creatures
and drew them near to Torah — [Avot 1:12]
so it was
Moses knew it would be through Aaron
that the Shekhinah would come to rest
in our Sanctuary, saying –
my brother is more excellent than I
through his sacrifices
and his service
the Shekhinah will rest among you. [Rashi on Lev.9:4, JT, Yoma 1:1]
See the blue around the flame
the space that may –
may not be physically present,
the blue that represents Shekhinah
which is like lapis
like the color of the sea
which is like the sky
something like the color of the Throne of Glory –
like a vision.
D [1/2] E-flat  F  G
Every Shabbat has a musical firgure associated with it
Hebrew cognate maqom
From the American Jewish World Service
Parshat Shmini 5772
Aaron’s delicate attention to the ritual facilitates a powerful spiritual epiphany for the entire people. We are told that God’s glory and fire appears, ‘And all the people saw and shouted with joy and fell on their faces.’1
The text hints towards a tightly woven dynamic between the high-priest and the beneficiaries of the cultic practice—the ‘am.’ In fact, the word am—people, appears eleven times in this section. While Aaron and his family perform the ritual, the text alludes to the idea that there is no rite without the people. The priests may reach towards the Divine, but the Divine is only contained in the face of the entire collective.
This idea may shed new light on the mystery of what caused one sacrifice to go horribly awry. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring an ‘alien fire’2 to God. In an unforeseen twist, the fire that exalts the people a few verses back becomes lethal, consuming Nadav and Avihu. Epiphany becomes trauma.
Commentary on this incident has often focused on the “alien” nature of the fire, interpreting the case as a warning against stepping beyond the confined structure of the sacrificial ceremony. However, the interplay of the individual and the collective in the text points to an alternative understanding. Nadav and Avihu’s actions are described in the third person plural—“they” took, put, placed and brought3—with the exception of the words “ish machtato—each man took his fire pan.”4 This sudden focus on the singular, ish, contrasts with the notion of a plural am so prevalent in the previous section, suggesting that Nadav and Avihu do not seek an experience for the collective; rather, they are driven to seek God alone—each man for himself.
Moreover, the reference to each man’s fire-pan conjures a sense of a container that is the perfect size for an individual. While the altar on which Aaron sacrificed was extended to include the large and powerful am as a receptacle for the Divine, the pans of Nadav and Avihu stood alone, not large enough to contain the tremendous revelation. While God’s fire and revelation may be transformative when it is absorbed by a group, for two individuals, it is destructive.
This interpretation is reinforced by Moshe’s response to the calamity. He cites God: “This is just what the Lord spoke, saying, ‘Through those close to Me shall I be hallowed; And in all the people’s presence shall I be honored.’”5 Moshe seems to be saying that in cultic practice there is a fundamental indivisibility between the priests and the greater people. God’s presence may be brought down by the priests, but it needs to be contained by the larger community.
This is not to say that there is no space in Judaism—or in our own lives—for one’s individual journey. But perhaps the tale of Nadav and Avihu may invite us to consider the weight we have come to place on individual experience often to the exclusion of the collective. When we engage in social action, are we always sure to direct our efforts toward the needs of the community and the greater good or do we sometimes do it just for the rush of good feeling or other self-serving motivations?
In South Africa, where I live, there are homeless people on virtually every street corner. I find it hard to drive by without offering some coins or food. However, this act of tzedakah alone does little to change the system of rich versus poor. If I am honest, this act of giving is quite a superficial way to address poverty and is more about my own discomfort with being a person who has so much facing those who have so little. My false sense of doing good lulls me into the feeling I have taken action to address poverty. In dealing with poverty at this level, my conscience is alleviated and momentarily I don’t feel so uncomfortable with the current status quo. Ironically, my act of giving helps me avoid tackling the deeper systemic change that is required.
Whether it be in tzedakah, service or advocacy, if we move from a consciousness of ish to one of am, we are compelled to consider the wider systems very carefully before intervening. In this way, we ensure that our actions serve the needs of all involved. This does not diminish our impact; in fact, it has the potential to widen and deepen our capacity to really make a contribution.
Nadav and Avihu leave us with a sense that perhaps something is lost when our focus shifts from an interplay between the individual and the collective to a pure focus on ourselves. If our consciousness remains focused at the level of ish, our capacity to transform ourselves and the world around us becomes diminished. However, if, like Aaron, we can balance our dance between ish and am, we have a chance at helping to create a world where everyone has access to the joy beheld by the people in Parshat Shmini.
1 Leviticus 9:24.
2 Leviticus 10:1.
5 Leviticus 10:3.
Torah Reading for Week of April-15-21, 2012
“And the World Was Silent”
By Rabbi Cecilia Herzfeld-Stern, ‘11
Fire and silence. In a strange way, they go together. There is power in fire, in its capacity to create, or transform, as well as to destroy. Depending upon the outcome, we are transfixed in a silent awe or horror. At such times, we are rendered speechless, and silence seems to be the only response we can have. But is it always?
The image of fire is used dramatically in biblical narratives to convey G-d as Creator or Destroyer. This week’s parsha, Shemini, contains an especially enigmatic example:
The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in them, placed incense upon it, and brought it before HaShem [the unspeakable Name of G-d], an alien fire HaShem had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them; and they died before HaShem…and Aaron was silent (Lev 10:1-3)
Though biblical commentary is replete with numerous speculations about the strange fire, and inadequate explanations for why G-d would make “burnt offerings” of his priests, only Rashi, the great medieval commentator, addresses Aaron’s silence directly. He wrote: “He [Aaron] received a reward for this silence. And what was it? That a divine utterance came to him privately.” What could Rashi mean by this? How can one be “rewarded” for a response of silence to the horrific death of his sons? And, what is this “divine utterance”?
Biblical commentary always begins with the Hebrew. Noted German theologian and biblical scholar, H.F.W. Gesenius, in his Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, extrapolates on the Hebrew word yeedom, translated as silent or “hold his peace” in this verse:
“This root [d-m-m] is…an imitation of the sound of the shut mouth (hm, dm)…to be dumb, applied both to silence and quietness, and to the stupefaction of one who is lost in wonder and astonishment; in the causative and transitive conjugations, it is applied to destruction and desolation, inasmuch as things or places which are destroyed and made desolate, are still and quiet.”
Again, silence has a different quality dependent upon the experience. Aaron’s initial silence might have been shock at his sons’ creative fire offering (an “alien fire G-d had not commanded of them”) becoming a destructive burnt sacrifice of them. Perhaps the “stupefaction” gave way to “stillness” or “quiet,” in which Aaron was “rewarded” with the divine utterance of G-d that the prophet Elijah later heard, kol d’mamah dakau, literally the “sound of silence” (I Kings 19:12). Perhaps, this place brought Aaron divine comfort and strength in his grief, as the psalmist wrote: “Truly my soul waits quietly (d’umeeyah) for G-d…Truly G-d is my rock and deliverance, my haven; I shall never be shaken” (Ps 62:1-3).
As we make our way through this text, we are reminded of another “strange fire”—in this week’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah. We are reminded of the silence, the shock, the “stupefaction” of the world, “lost in astonishment to the destruction and desolation,” that defied any human comprehension. The human mind still tries to make sense of what is incomprehensible, when silence is the most appropriate response. As the late Slonimer Rebbe* expressed so poignantly:
“A person’s heart and brain are incapable of grasping what happened here [in the Shoah]. There is no expression for this, for natural human emotions are too inconsequential to feel pain of such breadth and horrible depth. Only mute silence, as it says, ‘And Aharon was silent,’ expresses our crushed hearts, better than any expression, which is not appropriate or correct for such a matter.”
(Al Hahashmada v’haChurban)
*(Almost all of the Slonimer Hasidim in Belarus, Europe perished during the Shoah.)
Perhaps, Aaron’s initial silence of his “crushed heart” gave way to the silence of his faith—where the prophets heard the Divine Utterance. Biblically, this inner guidance always led to outer action. G-d would not leave the prophets alone until they spoke out against the injustices of their times. And, so, too, our initial shock to atrocities in the world needs to give way to appropriate action.
The world’s silent response to the Shoah was deafening and oppressive. As Nobel Peace Prize survivor Elie Wiesel wrote:
“The victim suffered more…profoundly from the indifference of the onlookers than from the brutality of the executioner…It was the silence of those he believed to be his friends—cruelty more cowardly, more subtle—which broke his heart…If this is the human society we come from—and now are abandoned by—why seek to return?”
There were few who were able to hear the stories so necessary for healing. Once the world was finally ready to listen, there has been a continuous outpouring of unending grief—too overwhelming for our fragile psyches to confront, much less address. Yet, confront and address it we must. What we do not face and deal with, rules our lives—collectively as well as individually. The Shoah represents the worst, and perhaps even the best, of what we, as human beings, are capable. We need to look at, and remember, it all.
The Shoah is receding into history, into the recesses of our forgetfulness, soon to be a distant memory, to which we cannot relate. Rather than surrender it to the many simplistic clichés that already accompany its residence there, we need to engage with the struggles we have with this history. Our initial shock of silence to atrocities in the world needs to give way to appropriate action. Numbing silence can fuel destructive fires. The divine utterance of wisdom can lead to tikkun olam, the repair of the world. May we have the courage to listen and respond to the deafening silences of the world.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Emotional and Spiritual Nourishment (2012/5772)
Parshat Shmini introduces what we now call kosher eating, listing in detail principles and examples of permitted and forbidden animals. Famous principles include: Eat only mammals with a split hoof who chew their cud; eat only aquatic creatures that bear fins and scales. No one knows for sure the original meaning of these principles. We theorize that they express ancient understandings of healthy eating; metaphysical principles of cosmic order; basic training in self-discipline; and more.
This week I’m reading the book Happier by Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar. Many people are unhappy, he writes, because they do not understand the psychology of happiness. Ben-Shahar invites us to examine the purpose and goals of our lives. Do we orient ourselves to living a life of meaning? Many people, he says, are concerned only with their material nourishment and success. Do we think carefully enough about what nourishes us emotionally? Are we “nearing bankruptcy in the only currency that really matters”?
Provoked by Ben-Shahar’s questions, I began to see the kosher laws in Parshat Shmini in a different light. The Biblical laws can be read as metaphorical reminders to nourish ourselves spiritually and emotionally. Each law prompts us to ask ourselves a question. Animals with a split hoof easily grip the ground – are we well-grounded? Animals who chew their cud literally ruminate – do we take the time to bring up our experiences and reflect on them? Fish with fins and scales move easily in fluid environments – are we able to be flexible as life changes around us?
As Ben-Shahar says, “When the questions that guide our life are about finding more meaning, we are much more likely to derive benefit from the journey.”
From American Jewish World Service
This week’s Dvar Tzedek was originally published in 2009.
Parashat Shmini juxtaposes two sacrifices, both offered to God by Israelites in the desert and both summoning Divine fire, but with tragically different consequences. The first series of sacrifices was offered by Aaron and his sons and was rewarded: “the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people” and “[f]ire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar.”1 The second, incense offered by Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, elicited God’s wrath and swift punishment: “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died.”2
The contrast between these two parts of Parashat Shmini—one capped off by a holy revelation and a sacrifice-consuming fire and the other by sudden, fiery death—is striking. Why did Nadav and Avihu die? Were they not serving God by offering sacrifices, just as they and their father and brothers had previously?
Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator, uses the phrase immediately following the description of the brothers’ sacrifice to explain the problem with their offering. Commenting on the words, “which [God] had not enjoined upon them,” he explains that their grave sin lay in doing something that God had not commanded them to do, in contrast to the earlier part of the parashah, in which the priests do “as Moses had commanded.”3 It was not so much what Nadav and Avihu brought as why they brought it—because of their own autonomous desire to worship God, not in response to God’s command.4
We can certainly understand this impulse. In our own modern, incense-less version of service, sometimes we respond to an explicit request for aid, while at other times we serve others spontaneously out of a desire to give or effect change in the world. Intuitively, we may feel that service offered out of our own heroic motivation should be more highly regarded than service offered in response to a call for help. After all, there is something a bit coercive about responding when someone asks—it can be difficult to say “no” in the face of suffering—while there is something unboundedly generous about offering help simply because one feels like it. Perhaps spontaneous human outpourings of help should be placed on a level above responses to solicitations. Perhaps, we might think as Nadav and Avihu did, that taking matters into our own hands and proactively offering of ourselves to God or to other people is the highest form of service.
Yet, we may also reason that the best kind of help is the kind that most closely aligns with people’s needs. We see in humanitarian crises, again and again, that help without a directive can do more harm than good. One powerful example of this was the spontaneous outpouring of individual donations after the tragic tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands and left many more displaced, diseased and destitute in southeast Asia in December 2004.5 Some of the unprecedented donations that flowed in after the disaster included things that were clearly of no use to the displaced and homeless in the hot, humid climate of southeast Asia, such as four-inch stilettos and wool blankets. Other contributions seemed useful to well-meaning donors, but were out of touch with progress already made on the ground. Knowing that clean drinking water was urgently needed in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, donors kept sending heavy bottled water long after water purification systems had been set up by aid agencies.6
The tragedy of Nadav and Avihu as refracted through Ibn Ezra’s focus on commandedness versus volition can teach us something about our service to other people. It tells us, in a horrifyingly stark way, that we must not let generous motives get disconnected from the reality on the ground; that our modern “offerings” are best given thoughtfully in response to explicit needs. As alien as the story of Nadav and Avihu may seem to us, the impulses that it addresses are human ones, familiar to each of us: the urge to quickly offer the help that we want to offer, regardless of what is needed. The harsh punishment meted out to Aaron’s sons is not one that I would condone, but the seriousness with which Nadav and Avihu’s very human impulses were checked should give us pause. It should compel us to make the effort to find out, from the people we seek to help, exactly what they need before we rush to give.
1 Leviticus 9:8-24.
2 Leviticus 10:2.
3 Leviticus 10:1.
4 Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 10:1. Leviticus 9:21.
5 Over 275,000 killed, according to the United States Geological Survey Press Release, February 10, 2005. http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=672. Over 1.5 million displaced peoples, according to the World Health Organization Situation Report, February 2005. http://www.who.int/hac/crises/international/asia_tsunami/sitrep/32/en/.
6 “Useless Tsunami Aid Includes Winter Coats,” Associated Press, February 11, 2005. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6954302/
Torah Reading for Week of March 31-April 6, 2013
“The Temptation of New Beginnings”
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ‘04
Parasha Shemini, constituting Lev 9:1-11:47, is unusual in many ways. This is the only parasha named after a number–eight! Why is ‘eight” important? And what does the number eight have to do with the two important thematic issues that constitute the majority of this Parsha– the mysterious deaths of Nadav and Avihu and the detailed laws of kashrut (keeping kosher)?
We know that seven is the number of completion in Jewish tradition. There are seven days in the week and the seventh day is Shabbat, the day of rest. In traditional Jewish weddings, the bride circles the groom seven times under the chuppah (wedding canopy). In Jewish funerals, the procession from funeral coach to gravesite stops seven times. The number seven figures prominently in delineations of Jewish time — the seven weeks of Counting the Omer, and the Sabbatical year marking the seventh year when the land rests and is renewed. But what about eight? Just as ‘seven’ refers to completion, ‘eight’ is associated with new beginnings. A brit milah (circumcision) is conducted on the eighth day of a young boy’s life, after completing a week as an ‘unaffiliated’ infant, he is brought into the covenant and his new life as a Jew begins on the eighth day. After the 49 days of counting the seven weeks of the Omer, the 50th day, the beginning of the eighth week is Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving Torah…marking a radically new spiritual beginning!
Leviticus 9:1 tells us that Aaron and his sons have spent seven days being ceremonially prepared by Moses for their new priestly duties. The seven day training period having been completed, on the eighth day they step into their new roles.
New beginnings offer opportunity and freedom. The next section of our Parsha illustrates the potential dangers of freedom, as Nadav and Avihu, two of the four sons of Aaron who has just been invested into priestly service, perform some undefined ritually inappropriate act, and are killed. Be careful with new beginnings, this parsha is telling us. Whether religious zealotry, misguided ritual passion or strong drink were the contributing factors is irrelevant. The fact is that new opportunities have both positive and negative potential. We are being reminded to handle new responsibilities thoughtfully, considering implications and understanding boundaries.
The parsha continues with details about kashrut, the “fitness” of the food we consume. It details which kinds of animals and insects are permitted, describing their physical characteristics with anatomical details that are to help us discern what is and is not appropriate food.
Why do these details about kashrut follow the story of Nadav and Avihu? Their story is a warning about the potential dangers of a spiritual journey; Nadav and Avihu were explorers who overstepped their bounds. It is fitting, then, to follow this narrative with the laws of kashrut which are designed to guide our steps … to set up boundaries within which we can safely explore. Having experienced the tragic consequences of actions based on passion without appropriate limits, the necessity for boundaries becomes clear. The last verse of the Parsha reminds us: “To distinguish between the impure and the pure.”
New beginnings are exciting, but can be dangerous. Recognizing the wisdom of boundaries can help keep us spiritually nourished and safe. May we all step into our new beginnings well trained, spiritually prepared, and honoring appropriate boundaries.
From Rabbi Fern Feldman
The big vav in Parshat Shemini–Cutting across all categories of being
By Rabbi Fern
Sunday, April 7th, 2013
In Parshat Shemini, Leviticus 11:42, the Torah tells us that we shouldn’t eat “Kol haholech al gachon”, “any creature that crawls on its belly”. The word for belly, gachon is spelled with one letter much larger than the others—it has a big vav. This is one of 16 or more letters in Torah (depending on the tradition of the scribe) that are written larger or smaller than the rest.
Whenever we see one of these letters, we have to wonder what the message is. We can start by realizing that the Torah is trying to get us to pay attention to the topic at hand— the large vav in the word for belly points to the importance of being mindful of what we put in our bellies. And especially when we are talking about animals, knowing that we cannot eat every animal helps us be aware that not everything in creation is here for our benefit as humans—as Maimonides teaches, every being has its own inherent worth.
But this particular large letter is more crucial than most. The Talmud (Kiddushin 30) tells us this vav is middle letter of the Torah—that is, it is the very center of the whole Torah. So perhaps we are to learn that what we put in our bellies is central, literally. And understanding that not everything is here just for us, means that we are not the center of the universe. (In fact, the letter vav is the center.)
However, when one actually counts the letters of Torah, this vav is close to 5,000 letters off from center. There are various explanations of why that is–[the Talmud records a conversation between two sages who say they can’t figure it out because they don’t know enough grammar to tell when certain letters should be included or not but that wouldn’t account for as big difference as there is. Some say our vav is middle letter of the Torah if you spell out each letter’s name, and then count those letters.] But in any case, it seems this teaching is there to tell us something other than its literal meaning —but what?
The tradition finds it important to tell us this letter vav in the word “belly” is the belly of the Torah.
If Torah has a belly, it is a creature. We already tend to think of Torah as alive– the book of Proverbs, and our liturgy, calls Torah the Tree of Life. The blessing we say after Torah reading gives thanks for a Torah of truth, and parallels it with eternal life being planted within us. The rollers that the Torah scroll is wrapped around are called atzei chaim, trees of life. From this, we get the idea that the Torah is a dynamic living organism, a plant. But in addition, the Torah’s parchment is animal hide. The Torah could be called a living animal too—an animal with a belly in its middle. Like an animal, it grows, loves and is loved. So we can see the Torah as both plant and animal.
But the teaching we are looking at here is coming from the actual physical letter vav, in it being made bigger than the rest. Torah ink, made partially from soot, or carbon, which by tradition can be produced either from the burning of plant or animal matter, is not long-lasting enough without the addition of something we consider inorganic, either iron or copper. This inorganic matter, this ink, is teaching us something. It is the very physicality of the letter, not the meaning alone, which gives over the teaching. The vav, by being bigger than the other letters, is communicating with us. The letter is not there just to represent some meaning that corresponds to it, it is teaching us something through its material presence. The nonrepresentational existence, in itself, of the letter vav teaches we humans. And it is teaching us that matter has agency. The vav is reminding us that the Torah is material. Not only does it have a body, and a belly, but its body is made of animal, vegetable, and mineral. And of all of those, the one that speaks to us the most directly is the ink, the mineral.
In the Torah’s existence as animal, vegetable and mineral, it crosses what we think of as the fixed boundaries between different types of created beings. This undoes the separations that are so common in Jewish thought, between four different domains: the domem, or silent, that is, minerals; the tzomeach, or sprouting, that is, plants; the chai, or living, that is, animals; and lastly the m’daber or speaking, that is, in this system, the human. These four categories are often seen as a hierarchy of levels of awareness, with increasing sacredness and value, placing the speaking ones, ostensibly just the humans, at the pinnacle of the system. But the Torah is a living entity, and its very being cuts across all categories of being. When carbon and iron, tree and animal make one living entity, known as Torah, and it speaks to us, when we pick the Torah up in our arms, touch it, kiss it, bless it, read from it, we are drawn into its reality, we enter the realm of its being. We then can become much larger than our individual selves, aware of the multiple worlds that are within and around us, and we become capable of experiencing the interconnectedness, the woven-ness-into-being that is the source of all, and is all.
From the Maqam Project< /strong>
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Rabbi Yehuda Hausman
The God of Winter
Torah Reading: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Maftir Reading: Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah Reading: Ezekiel 36:16-38
A winter’s sun can give off much light but little warmth. The day may be radiant with bright snow and brilliant sky, but still we plod along with our shoulders pinched, teeth clenched, gloved hands buried deep in our pockets. Holiness can often feel like the sun in December, akin a menorah, we seem not meant to benefit but to ache for its light and, more so, its heat.
It is evident from this week’s Torah portion that Nadav and Avihu must have pined for holiness. It was not enough that they were priests and thus they ranked among the elders of Israel (Lev. 9.1). It did not suffice that they assisted their father, Aaron the High Priest, on the sacred day of the Tabernacle’s inauguration. From the beginning of the Torah portion, we are told pointedly and repeatedly of their full participation on that auspicious day. ‘They brought the blood… and delivered to Aaron the burnt offering…’ (Lev. 9.1,8-20). Still they yearned to draw closer. So the sons of Aaron, “took each his censer, and placed in them fire and laid incense upon it; and they brought-near alien fire before the Lord” (Lev. 10.1).
What happens next is strange on many counts. “And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and consumed them, so they died before the Lord” (10.2) It is not clear if this fire comes down from heaven, or emerges from the Holy of Holies. What is clear is that this second fire differs drastically from the first fire mentioned just a few verses above: “A fire went out from before the Lord to consume upon the altar the burnt-offering and fats” (9.24). This first flame contained heat, so much heat, that the day’s offerings, which had been roasting slowly on the altar’s normal flames, were consumed in an instant (R. Dovid Tzvi Hoffman).
In contrast, the flames that consume Aaron’s sons contain no heat. Each soul is devoured but it is a fire that leaves flesh and garments intact. Moses instructs two Levite cousins to remove the bodies from the Sanctuary, “So they drew near, and carried them by their tunics out of the camp” (10:5). There are no singed garments or seared skin. (see Rashi.) The tragic turn of events drips with irony. Aaron’s sons sought unsanctioned fire to “warm” themselves; measure-for-measure, the fire that took them was devoid of any heat.
If we consider the nature of holiness in the Torah, it consistently suggests hierarchy and degradations, the further away we stand the less intense the flame. God descends to Mt. Sinai in fire (Ex. 19.18). Someway down the mountain, Moses stands between God and the Elders, the Elders, in turn, stand between Moses and Israel, and the camp of Israel forms a boundary between the Mountain and mankind. The Sanctuary is no different. There is a courtyard around God’s dwelling place. The Levites encircle the courtyard and Tent of Meeting. The Israelite camp forms a ring around the Levites, and around Israel, there dwells the great mass of humanity. In our day, we think of the hierarchy as ‘Temple, Jerusalem, Promised Land, and Diaspora.’ But even the animal kingdom is divvied up in Leviticus. All of humanity can enjoy every kind of fish or fowl, critter or quadruped. But judging by the list rendered at the end of Parashat Shemini, only a tenth of those can be eaten by Israel, and of that tenth only a small portion is rendered fit as a sacrifice before the Lord. Clearly, proximity would mean a great deal, as God’s aura emanates from a central place. But before we conclude thus, consider Nadav and Avihu, who even before the presence of the Lord felt a sort of chill.
Such may be the strange fire of Godliness, near yet apart; the bush burns but does not burn; once, Israel experienced a fire upon the mountain, but the mountain was not ablaze. Long ago, there was an eight-day miracle, the wicks drew oil, formed teardrop flames, hour-upon-hour passed, but the wicks were not consumed.
If one message may be derived from our studies, perhaps it is this. We can only prepare ourselves for holiness, akin the Israelites who cleansed themselves, in body and spirit, before Revelation; or through careful ritual, as the priests and people performed before the Sanctuary’s Inauguration. In the meanwhile, till that bright light suddenly erupts in warmth, there is only the longing, as winter waits for spring.
At opening day at the mishkan (sanctuary), vayera kivod-HaShem el kol ha’am. The glory of God appeared to the entire nation. (Leviticus 9:23) What an intense moment of communal euphoria! But Torah describes it so delicately and abstractly. What, exactly, appeared?
Rashbam (1985-1158) peeks ahead to the next verse, “a fire came out from the presence of God.” This information makes the event easier to reconstruct. People saw a fire flash forth from the Holy of Holies.
Abrabanel (1437-1508) wonders at this answer. Why associate the appearance of fire with the presence of God? Why not with water? After all, Torah says God settled on the mishkan in the form of a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. Most likely, the so-called fire was light refracted by the cloud’s droplets.
Bechor Shor (1100s) reminds readers not to read too literally and quibble about physical manifestations of God. Properly understood, the kavod (glory) of God did not appear as a physical light. The word refers to the higher, spiritual Presence that our sages call Shechinah. People did not literally “see” a communal vision. Instead, each person felt deeply moved by a communal spiritual force.
Anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983) might say that communitas appeared. Normally, people relate to one another through practical and hierarchical roles. Sometimes, during disruptions or certain rituals, the everyday order disappears. A powerful, glorious, close-knit community appears. People include and help one another in unprecedented ways.
When and where in your life has communitas appeared — during victories, natural disasters, holidays, life cycle events, or significant transitions? Did you learn anything you can import into daily life? Can you find ways to help Shechinah appear?
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Fire: Holy and Unholy
By Rabbi Diane Elliot, ‘07
“Va-yehi ba-yom hash’mini…” It is on the eighth day that the dedication of the Mishkan, the desert Tabernacle, spoken into being by God’s desire to dwell amongst the Israelites and built with their heart-offerings, culminates in Aaron’s successful performance, for the first time, of his priestly service. After he performs all the offerings flawlessly, according to Divine direction, Aaron raises his hands to bless the people, and YHVH materializes as a density visible to all! Holy fire leaps forth to consume the offerings, a great joyous cry of relief rises from every throat and, as if with a single impulse, the whole people throw themselves upon the ground in awe.
Suddenly, in the midst of this ritual high drama, a shocking rupture occurs—Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s eldest sons, each place fire and incense upon their fire pans and bring “esh zara, strange fire,” before the altar. In an instant, they are consumed by the same miraculous Divine fire that, just moments before, had engulfed with favor their father’s offerings.
At this excruciating moment, Moses says to his brother, simply, “This is what God meant when saying, ‘Through those near to me will I be sanctified; before all the people will I be glorified.’ ” Aaron’s response? “Va-yidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3)
Rashi, the great 11th century Torah commentator, interprets Moses’ words as high praise for the spiritual attainments of Aaron’s sons. Moses is telling Aaron, Rashi posits, that it’s because of Nadav and Avihu’s “nearness” to God, their saintliness, that the final sanctification of the Mishkan has taken place through their deaths.
I want to hear the tone of Moses’ voice, to see his face. Have his eyes softened in empathy? Are they brimming with tears? Is he speaking gently, attempting to offer his brother some comfort in the face of unspeakable? Or is he impassive, majestic, still rapt with the elevated energy of ceremony, teaching his brother yet another lesson about the Torah order that is henceforth to govern Israel’s religious and communal life?
And what of Aaron’s silence? Does it signify, as the Biur (Naphtali Hirz Wessely, German, 18th c.) suggests, patience, resignation, and an inner peace that accepts his sons’ fate and receives with equanimity ol malkhut shamayim, heaven’s yoke? Or is Aaron’s a shocked, frozen, stunned silence? After all, God stayed Abraham’s hand when Isaac was upon the altar! Why now must these sons, these princes of the people, be sacrificed (drawn close), along with the bulls, rams, and goats?
Only once in my life have I experienced the sudden, shocking loss of someone with whom I was emotionally and spiritually bound up. It was not the loss of my child or close relative, but of my teacher, R. David World-Blank z”l, killed in a car crash at the age of 47. At the moment I received the news, it felt like being kicked in the gut and having my heart ripped open at the same time. I wanted to cry out, to writhe, but at the time, I was living in a shared household with people I didn’t know well, with whom I didn’t feel safe. So I kept silent as I tried to stay present and ride the powerful feelings and sensations of wrenching pain alternating with numbness and disbelief.
The psalmist cries out to God, “l’ma’an yizamerkha kavod v’lo yidom, Adonai elohai, l’olam odeka, So that my soul might sing Your glory and not be silent, YHVH, my God, I will forever thank you!” (Psalm 30:13) Here the quality of yidom is not a resigned or accepting silence, but a heavy-hearted silence that chokes off joyful song. Gratitude and praise, the psalmist suggests, can release the voice again, providing the antidote to this silence of despair.
But both the psalmist and Aaron know that this takes time. “Ba-erev yalin bekhi, v’la boker rinah, at night one lies down weeping, but with the dawn—joyful singing!” (Psalm 30:6) In the “dark night of the soul,” pain can be digested, and eventually transmuted into song. Aaron, ever more in touch with the human, fleshly realm than his God-centered brother, instructs Moses in this truth by refusing to eat the sin-offering within the sacred precinct on the same day that his sons have died. “Didn’t they, this very day, bring close their sin offering and their burnt offering before YHVH—and things like this befell me? Am I now to eat the sin-offering? Would YHVH approve?” (Leviticus 10:19)
Yom hash’mini, the “eighth day,” takes us beyond the pale of Creation, the familiar rhythm of seven, and into the realm of the Infinite, where the mysteries of life and death, of joy and loss, of elation and heartbreak, flow into one another in a single song of simultaneous love and awe. It’s not an easy realm for most of us to inhabit.
When such ruptures, such losses occur in our own lives, may we be gentle with ourselves, honoring the nights of weeping, the days of silence, and taking the time, as Aaron teaches, to allow words of praise and thanksgiving and blessing to find their way through our shattered hearts and gradually back into our mouths, where they teach us, bit by bit, to embrace the Vastness, the infinity, for which we each are a vessel.
Shabbat Parashat Shemini
By: Reb Mimi Feigelson,
One More Word about Silence
Torah Reading: Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Haftarah Reading: Ezekiel 36:16 – 38
This Purim I adorned myself with a pair of pants, a skirt, a blouse and yet another skirt (draped as a toga) all bearing a black and white pattern of different sorts. I asked people to guess who or what I am. Most of the answers ranged between “a goddess” (the workman on the street after explaining to him why so many dressed up people were walking into Rabbi Artson’s home on what appeared to be a regular Friday morning), “Indira Ghandi” (a doctor and his mother-in-law – five minutes apart.), and “a newspaper that had been run over” (a friendly congregant where I heard the megillah being read). To all I responded, “That’s right!” Then their puzzled look, and then my smile while saying: “I’m a Rorschach test!!!” I will note that two Ziegler students actually did guess who I was with no added clues.
As the seven days after Purim still hold within them the light of Purim (as do the seven days after any holiday) I want to share with you what I now call “A Rorschach Torah”. Earlier this week, I walked into Rabbi Artson’s study and offered to share two new ways of looking at Aharon’s silence upon the death of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu. When I questioned his smile while listening he said, “We are so different in the way we see things”. I invite you to join in on our chavruta (partnered-learning) in explaining Aharon’s silence by offering four possible readings.
The Torah teaches us, at the conclusion of the inauguration of the Mishkan (tabernacle) Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aharon Hacohen (Aron the priest), are struck by fire because they “offered a strange fire before God which He had not commanded them” (Vayikra/Leviticus 10, 2). A close reading of verses 1-2 will note that the phrase that repeats itself three times is “Lifnei Hashem / before God” They offered their offering “before God”, the fire that consumes them comes from “before God” and we’re told that they die “before God.” Moshe, in God’s name, says “I will be sanctified in those that come near to me” and Aharon’s response to this is silence (verse 3).
Rashi’s interpretation gleans from the Talmud and Midrash. The fire of Nadav and Avihu was indeed alien but they were actually being punished for earlier deeds. None the less, their death was a punishment and Aharon’s silence is explained as an acceptance of the Divine decree. For many years this explanation seemed to represent a pious response in the face of tragedy, and I found myself continuously hearing it particularly at funerals when the person’s death seemed untimely (a child, God forbid) or an especially righteous person.
Rabbi Artson’s reading can been seen hinted at in the Rashbam’s (Rashi’s grandson) interpretation, though differently nuanced. According to Rabbi Artson, Aharon was angry at God for what had happened, and could not serve or continue to perform any of his priestly duties. He stands in silence as a protest to God. The Rashbam says that this was indeed his feeling, but that is why Moshe says to him “I will be sanctified in those that come near to me” and thus he quiets his feelings and continues to serve.
My alternate readings are based on a story I heard twenty years ago from Prof. Benny Ish-Shalom.
Every summer Rav Kook (first chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, d.1935) and Rav Charlap (chief rabbi of Yerushalayim) would go for their summer vacation to Kiryat Ya’arim (right outside of Yerushalayim). One morning after they awoke, Rav Kook went outside and had a lengthy and animated conversation with the gardener about the trees, the plants and the soil. He then returned to their room and began to recite the shacharit prayers. As the evening began to descend Rav Charlap finally found the courage to question Rav Kook regarding the unusual behavior of that morning – why didn’t he begin with his morning prayers like every day and then go out and talk to the gardener?
Rav Kook responded: “When I woke up this morning I felt that if I prayed immediately I’d come to “klot hanefesh” (my soul would ascend to God) so I went outside and talked to the gardener, and only when I felt ‘grounded’ in this world did I come in to pray the morning prayers.”
I held on to this story from the moment that I heard it, as a precious gem. Well, until one morning ten years ago. It was Chol Hamoed Sukkot and I was on my way from my home in Yerushalayim to learn with Rabbi Mickey Rosen at Yakar. The distance is about a seven minute walk. I found myself thinking about this cherished story and realizing that I actually didn’t like it at all! I thought to myself: “If I were to wake up one morning and realize that when praying I would say “Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” (Hear Israel Hashem is our God, Hashem is one) and at that moment my soul would cleave to God, would I not do it? Would I hold myself back from that moment of union that I have been yearning for my whole life? I couldn’t understand why Rav Kook held back, why he denied himself from reaching that ultimate peak of union with God.
When I entered the sukkah, Rabbi Rosen was already learning. “Mickey, I have a problem with Rav Kook!” He looked up from his book and said, “Just sit and learn.” I did, but 5 minutes later I said, “Mickey, I still have a problem with Rav Kook!” to which he replied “Just learn”. But after another 10 minutes passed and another, “Mickey, I have a problem with Rav Kook” he realized that I wasn’t going to be appeased and that if he didn’t address my problem he would get no learning done either!
I shared with him the story and my new found dilemma. His response was immediate: “There are two ways to give a gift – one way is to give the gift that you think is the ultimate gift, the other is to give a gift that the recipient wants to receive. You think that to give your soul back to God is the greatest gift you can give Him, but what Rav Kook understood is that the gift that God wants to receive is our service here in this world. It was only when he could pray in a manner that would keep him in this world did he begin to pray.”
I have been walking with the story for twenty years and with Rabbi Rosen’s answer for the last ten. I cannot tell the story without it. While I honor the truth of it I cannot let go of my question: “Why did Rav Kook hold back, why did he deny himself from reaching that ultimate peak of union with God?” I believe I may be a descendent of Nadav and Avihu.
In Shmot (Exodus 24, 9) Nadav and Avihu ascend the mountain with Moshe, Aharon and the seventy elders. They see God. And now, in our portion, they are inside the Mishkan, yet again with the potential of “Lifnei Hashem” (before God).” How could they hold back? How could they not run in to the inner chamber with a personal offering to God?
I read Aharon’s silence in one of two ways:
The first, he is envious of his sons. They were able to allow themselves that peak moment – something that he himself yearned for, but as a leader of a people had to deny himself. His silence was an acknowledgement and approval of their act. And more so, a silence of self-denial, knowing that he would never be able to allow himself such a moment. If I am a descendent of Nadav and Avihu, then Rav Kook was a descendent of Aharon Hakohen.
The second way of reading: a silence that shouts recognition of failure. As a parent he failed to teach his children how to walk out of the Holy of Holies, how to walk away from “Lifnei Hashem” (before God). He knew how to be the high priest as well as being able to make peace among people. He knew how to ascend the mountain in Shmot and in our Torah portion to enter the inside of the inside, while also maintaining the ability to interact with worldly and mundane issues. But he didn’t have the answer that Rabbi Rosen had for me to offer his sons. Aaron is silent because he failed to protect his sons from their devotion to God and their spiritual quest.
Epilogue – 2016
On Purim this year I redressed myself with last year’s costume – a white dress that had my students blessings written all over it. Last year I was “the white spaces between the black letters” and they were invited to use the markers I wore as a necklace to define the “black letters” on the “white spaces” of my dress. This year I added to my costume a paper hat made from earlier drafts of my dissertation and went as “A Draft.”I alluded both to myself and to the previous writings of my students, as I invited them to add to what they wrote on my dress last year.
I have dedicated much of the last seven years of my life to writing a dissertation that reclaims Jewish funerals as the last chapter of our personal lives: “On the Cusp of Life: From Scared to Sacred—Reclaiming Jewish Funerals.” As we create the script of our own funeral, we are choosing “the mask we will wear” to complement our shroud-costume. The same white garment that the High Priest wears when he enters the Holy of Holies… I believe that the possibilities to mirror Aharon Hacohen and/or his sons are gifts of reflection and choices asking of us to add one more word to the “silence question.” Perhaps this is where the practice of practicing silence and refraining for talking on Shabbat stems from; and as we adorn ourselves in white Shabbat clothes we adorn ourselves in silence.
Before Shabbat silence descends upon us I am taking advantage of the moment to wish us all a Shabbat shalom.
The Light We Make
From Rabbi David Kasher
The Path of Holiness
Radical Vegetarian Priests (Weekly Torah)
You could say it’s a downer month in the yearly cycle of Torah readings. Week after week of animal sacrifices. Daily offerings, celebratory offerings, court-ordered criminal atonement offerings, purification offerings; offerings for grieving, healing, birthing, house restoration, holidays and more.
Did everyone in ancient Israel enjoy the butcher show at the altar?
I don’t think so. In this week’s Torah reading, I see a story of resistance against animal sacrifice. My interpretation is not traditional, but found it using traditional methods
Parshat Shmini describes a terrible national tragedy on the opening day of the mishkan, the traveling wilderness tabernacle. The initial offerings and communal blessings go according to plan.
But two young priests, Nadav and Avihu, decide to improvise.
They prepare their fire-pans with fire and incense. They come forward and “offer in the presence of God a strange fire, about which they had not been instructed. Fire comes forth from the Presence of God and consumes them, and they die in the Presence of God” (Leviticus 10:1-2).
Why do Nadav and Avihu die? Torah does not tell us explicitly. So traditional commentators have looked for hints in nearby verses. Thus, they conclude:
Nadav and Avihu mean no harm, but get a little overly passionate about the occasion. After all, Moses eulogizes them with a compliment: they are “intimates of God” (Leviticus 10:3).
They party too heartily. Drink a few glasses of wine too many and lose focus. That’s why, after their deaths, God tells the High Priest Aaron, “Drink no wine…when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die” (Leviticus 10:8).
They take too much initiative, adding creatively to Moses’ instructions. After their death, God says, “Giving instructions for the rituals is in Moses’ hands!” (Leviticus 10:11).
But I have discovered a new theory. One that emerges in the light of contemporary eco-kosher consciousness.
Nadav and Avihu are protesting animal sacrifice. In solidarity with the animals, they throw themselves into the flames.
After their deaths, Moses reminds the priests to eat the meat offerings. “This is your portion of God’s offerings,” Moses says (Leviticus 10:13). But the priests still refuse to eat meat. High Priest Aaron says, “Given all that happened today, do you really think God would like us to eat this?” (Leviticus 10:19)
Moses backs down, but still wants to have the last word. So he reminds everyone: you can eat meat from animals with split hooves who chew their cud (Leviticus 11:1-3).
You know, I’m relieved to read hints of priestly discomfort with so much animal-killing. It would be odd to not to find it in Torah. The Hebrew Bible begins with appreciation of vegetarian eating: Adam and Eve are told to eat fruits, seeds, grains and greens (Genesis 1: 29-30). And towards the Bible’s end, vegetarianism is celebrated again: Daniel and his three vegetarian friends are healthier and smarter than their meat-eating colleagues (Daniel 1:10-17).
If I had broad authority, I would declare the week of Parshat Shmini “National Jewish Vegetarian Week.” Without that authority, I can only suggest: Honour Nadav and Avihu this week with a vegetarian meal. Don’t let their act of protest go unnoticed!
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